Day trip to Stonehenge review
Before you start... yes I know that Stonehenge isn't in London. I am aware of that. But it's such a popular day trip for tourists I thought I would give it a go anyway. So here I am -- 6 o'clock in the morning and I'm sitting on a seat in Waterloo station. I must be mad -- I've got practically the whole place to myself. There are just a handful of early risers, bin-men and train station staff pottering around doing nothing, just adjusting stuff until their bones have woken up. Even the pigeons seem half-asleep.
Normally I would go upstairs for a coffee but the darn place is still shut. All I can do is buy my train ticket and wait for the clock to drag its heavy hands round to the top.
It's forty quid to Salisbury -- that is how much a return ticket to Stonehenge costs from Waterloo. And even that doesn't get you the whole way. Salisbury is the closest train station to the monument but it's still nine miles away. You've got another bus journey to come after that -- but more about that later. All you need to know at this point is that it is 6 o'clock in the morning and I am sitting here still half-asleep waiting for the day to start. Me and the cleaners. Me and the pigeons.
Half-an-hour later... it's starting to come to life now. The tannoys have crackled into action and workers are pouring off the trains and spilling out over the concourse. They have brought a lot of noise with them. I've only got another ten minutes before my carriage comes so I sip up, chuck my cup across the table and get going.
The 07:10 train to Exeter Central is what I need, which pulls into Salisbury 1½ hours later -- so it's quite a lengthy ride. It's definitely a day-trip, put it that way -- so don't go thinking that you can visit Stonehenge and be back before lunch.
When you're on a long train trip you have to be prepared to fight for a window seat -- and I mean actually 'fight' (to the death, if necessary). There is nothing worse than having to stare at your shoes for two hours, whilst the English countryside whizzes by the window, out of sight. I used to order my tickets online but I don't bother anymore because the whole thing is a swizz. If you ask for a window seat they always seem to stick you in the one where the window splits in two -- with that big plastic spine running down the middle (do you know what I mean?). A window seat to me, is one that has got glass in it -- that stuff you can see through. Not one inch of window and three feet of plastic. So now I just take my chances and grab what I can -- beating up a few old ladies and kicking a few kids if I have to. I don't care. I am prepared to commit crimes to get a window seat. I don't care about peace in the Middle East, the disappearing rain-forests or worldwide famine -- just getting a decent window seat on the train is enough for me; which is silly really, because I spent most of the journey in the land of nod! From what I saw, though, it was quite a pleasant spectacle out the window.
You've got miles and miles of brown-brick suburbia which merges into the countryside. Vast expanses of green and trees, and hills beyond hills, more hills behind them, rolling over the end of the earth as far as your eyes can see -- all decorated with a billowing ribbon of fast-moving clouds. It's going to rain on those hills soon, but this train will be long gone by then... onto the next bit of weather further up the track.
If it's not green, then it's grey. That is my view of England today -- green, grey and raindrops on the window. The perfect weather for Stonehenge -- Stone Age weather.
I have arrived. It's 8:45 AM and I'm sitting in Salisbury station. That's not bad going when you remember how far away it is from London (about 90 miles). I never expected to get here this early. But the trek isn't over yet though, because now I've got to catch a bus.
Stonehenge is nine miles away from Salisbury station, and there are no local buses. The only way of reaching the stones is to splash out £26 quid on the 'Stonehenge Tour Bus' (which includes entry into Stonehenge). That is your only option. It's either that or walk -- or get a taxi, but I wouldn't like to guess how much that costs. Why couldn't those lazy cavemen just drag the stones another ten miles into town, closer to the train station? They'd already dragged them all the way from Wales, so I'm sure another ten miles wouldn't have hurt.
The tour bus stops right outside the station if you want to play it safe, but I think it's much better to walk ten minutes into town, and use their shop in New Canal Street (called 'Salisbury Reds'). It's quite a pretty little place once you get over the bridge, and you can check out Salisbury Cathedral too, which is five minutes from the centre. The buses run every hour-or-so, so you can stop for something to eat before it arrives.
It was at this point that I totalled up how much money I'd spent so far, and realised that it's quite a pricey day out. You're looking at 40 quid for the return train ticket, plus another £26 for the bus and entry into Stonehenge. So that is £66 quid straight away, before you've even splashed out on food and souvenirs. If you're taking your missus with you then that's the best part of £150 quid! (Maybe it's best to leave her at home.)
The tour bus was a lot of fun -- maybe the best part of the day. They do a little commentary as you drive along, pointing out Salisbury's old buildings and cathedral. Then you head out into the countryside and very soon you are surrounded by green. I'm from London, remember, so the only shade of green I've seen is the one that's covered in mud. But this is a rolling wave of dips and hills, past miles and miles of tree-coloured carpet. And all the time your eyes are continually scanning the horizon for your first sight of the stones. The atmosphere was greatly improved today by the grey rain bashing against the windows of the bus. But then all of a sudden you arrive at the Visitor Centre and you are there -- with no sign of the stones! Where the hell are they? Well... what they have done is very clever, because they have situated the centre more than a mile from the monument, out of sight and behind a crest of trees. And you have to get a little fleet of minibuses up the hill.
But before you do that though, it's worth having a look around the little museum and exhibition space. They've built a few Stone Age huts as well, and there's a cafe and a gift shop.
The seven-minute minibus ride is the last stage of your journey, but if you want to drag it out even more then you can opt to walk up the hill yourself. (My head was willing, but my knees weren't -- I took the bus.) I thought the ride had quite a nice Jurassic Park-feeling to it, trundling up the tree-lined path in a chained-up row of carriages. I was half-expecting a big Brontosaurus to come bounding out of the hedgerow but instead I got... stones.
I hate to say this because I really wanted it to be fantastic, but my first good look at Stonehenge elicited a... huh, okay. There they are, then -- some stones. In my mind's eye I was expecting them to be colossal blocks of granite carved out of the earth, like a ten-tonne slice of mountain. But they were disappointingly average. (It takes a lot to impress me!) The largest one didn't seem any higher than a house. But I admit that it's difficult to judge their size because you can't actually approach them close. What you have to do is walk along a roped-off bit of tarmac and grass, with about three million other people right beside you (which is a slight exaggeration, but not by much). You're all bundled in together with your cameras and your sandwiches, bottling up the queue as you try and take your photo. You've also got the distant rumble of lorries on the A303 right behind you. If they got rid of that and buried the road in mud then the scene would be pristine -- 360-degrees of green hills and trees as far as the eye can see. That must be how they saw it 4,500 years ago. Now it's decorated with a distant string of power lines on the cusp of the hill, a drone of choking cargo trucks and a cacophony of camera-snapping tourists.
The most impressive thing that I saw all day was the angry sky. I don't mean that as a joke either... imagine standing on top of that windy hill with the clouds wrapping right around you, close like a coat. It's not often that you can look in any direction and follow the sky all the way down to the joint, unencumbered by buildings, skyscrapers and cranes. It was like the wind and rain were whipping up a painting in the sky -- all gloomy blues and curtains of black and grey. It was like the world's worst watercolour, with a bucket of dirty slop chucked over the top.
It's difficult to grade an attraction like this because... what does it do? Nothing. You just look at it, and then go home. But I feel a bit guilty telling you not to bother, because, well... it's Stonehenge. Of course it's worth going. But this was my day: I spent over two hours getting there, another hour looking at some stones in the rain, then another two hours getting home. If that's worth 70 quid to you, then go for it.
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